Mogens, and Other Stories

Produced by Eric Eldred, and David Widger



By Jens Peter Jacobsen


Translated from the Danish By Anna Grabow









In the decade from 1870 to 1880 a new spirit was stirring in the intellectual and literary world of Denmark. George Brandes was delivering his lectures on the Main Currents of Nineteenth Century Literature; from Norway came the deeply probing questionings of the granitic Ibsen; from across the North Sea from England echoes of the evolutionary theory and Darwinism. It was a time of controversy and bitterness, of a conflict joined between the old and the new, both going to extremes, in which nearly every one had a share. How many of the works of that period are already out-worn, and how old-fashioned the theories that were then so violently defended and attacked! Too much logic, too much contention for its own sake, one might say, and too little art.

This was the period when Jens Peter Jacobsen began to write, but he stood aside from the conflict, content to be merely artist, a creator of beauty and a seeker after truth, eager to bring into the realm of literature “the eternal laws of nature, its glories, its riddles, its miracles,” as he once put it. That is why his work has retained its living colors until to-day, without the least trace of fading.

There is in his work something of the passion for form and style that one finds in Flaubert and Pater, but where they are often hard, percussive, like a piano, he is soft and strong and intimate like a violin on which he plays his reading of life. Such analogies, however, have little significance, except that they indicate a unique and powerful artistic personality.

Jacobsen is more than a mere stylist. The art of writers who are too consciously that is a sort of decorative representation of life, a formal composition, not a plastic composition. One element particularly characteristic of Jacobsen is his accuracy of observation and minuteness of detail welded with a deep and intimate understanding of the human heart. His characters are not studied tissue by tissue as under a scientist’s microscope, rather they are built up living cell by living cell out of the author’s experience and imagination. He shows how they are conditioned and modified by their physical being, their inheritance and environment, Through each of his senses he lets impressions from without pour into him. He harmonizes them with a passionate desire for beauty into marvelously plastic figures and moods. A style which grows thus organically from within is style out of richness; the other is style out of poverty.

In a letter he once stated his belief that every book to be of real value must embody the struggle of one or more persons against all those things which try to keep one from existing in one’s own way. That is the fundamental ethos which runs through all of Jacobsen’s work. It is in Marie Grubbe, Niels Lyhne, Mogens, and the infinitely tender Mrs. Fonss.

They are types of the kind he has described in the following passage: “Know ye not that there is here in this world a secret confraternity, which one might call the Company of Melancholiacs? That people there are who by natural constitution have been given a different nature and disposition than the others; that have a larger heart and a swifter blood, that wish and demand more, have stronger desires and a yearning which is wilder and more ardent than that of the common herd. They are fleet as children over whose birth good fairies have presided; their eyes are opened wider; their senses are more subtile in all their perceptions. The gladness and joy of life, they drink with the roots of their heart, the while the others merely grasp them with coarse hands.”

He himself was one of these, and in this passage his own art and personality is described better than could be done in thousands of words of commentary.

Jens Peter Jacobsen was born in the little town of Thisted in Jutland, on April 7, 1847. In 1868 he matriculated at the University of Copenhagen, where he displayed a remarkable talent for science, winning the gold medal of the university with a dissertation on Seaweeds. He definitely chose science as a career, and was among the first in Scandinavia to recognize the importance of Darwin. He translated the Origin of Species and Descent of Man into Danish. In 1872 while collecting plants he contracted tuberculosis, and as a consequence, was compelled to give up his scientific career. This was not as great a sacrifice, as it may seem, for he had long been undecided whether to choose science or literature as his life work.

The remainder of his short life—he died April 30, 1885—was one of passionate devotion to literature and a constant struggle with ill health. The greater part of this period was spent in his native town of Thisted, but an advance royalty from his publisher enabled him to visit the South of Europe. His journey was interrupted at Florence by a severe hemorrhage.

He lived simply, unobtrusively, bravely. His method of work was slow and laborious. He shunned the literary circles of the capital with their countless intrusions and interruptions, because he knew that the time allotted him to do his work was short. “When life has sentenced you to suffer,” he has written in Niels Lyhne, “the sentence is neither a fancy nor a threat, but you are dragged to the rack, and you are tortured, and there is no marvelous rescue at the last moment,” and in this book there is also a corollary, “It is on the healthy in you you must live, it is the healthy that becomes great.” The realization of the former has given, perhaps, a subdued tone to his canvasses; the recognition of the other has kept out of them weakness or self-pity.

Under the encouragement of George Brandes his novel Marie Grubbe was begun in 1873, and published in 1876. His other novel Niels Lyhne appeared in 1880. Excluding his early scientific works, these two books together with a collection of short stories, Mogens and Other Tales, published in 1882, and a posthumous volume of poems, constitute Jacobsen’s literary testament. The present volume contains Mogens, the story with which he made his literary debut, and other characteristic stories.

The physical measure of Jacobsen’s accomplishment was not great, but it was an important milestone in northern literature. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that in so far as Scandinavia is concerned he created a new method of literary approach and a new artistic prose. There is scarcely a writer in these countries, since 1880, with any pretension toward literary expression who has not directly or indirectly come under Jacobsen’s influence.



SUMMER it was; in the middle of the day; in a corner of the enclosure. Immediately in front of it stood an old oaktree, of whose trunk one might say, that it agonized in despair because of the lack of harmony between its fresh yellowish foliage and its black and gnarled branches; they resembled most of all grossly misdrawn old gothic arabesques. Behind the oak was a luxuriant thicket of hazel with dark sheenless leaves, which were so dense, that neither trunk nor branches could be seen. Above the hazel rose two straight, joyous maple-trees with gayly indented leaves, red stems and long dangling clusters of green fruit. Behind the maples came the forest—a green evenly rounded slope, where birds went out and in as elves in a grasshill.

All this you could see if you came wandering along the path through the fields beyond the fence. If, however, you were lying in the shadow of the oak with your back against the trunk and looking the other way—and there was a some one, who did that—then you would see first your own legs, then a little spot of short, vigorous grass, next a large cluster of dark nettles, then the hedge of thorn with the big, white convolvulus, the stile, a little of the ryefield outside, finally the councilor’s flagpole on the hill, and then the sky.

It was stifling hot, the air was quivering with heat, and then it was very quiet; the leaves were hanging from the trees as if asleep. Nothing moved except the lady-birds and the nettles and a few withered leaves that lay on the grass and rolled themselves up with sudden little jerks as if they were shrinking from the sunbeams.

And then the man underneath the oak; he lay there gasping for air and with a melancholy look stared helplessly towards the sky. He tried to hum a tune, but gave it up; whistled, then gave that up too; turned round, turned round again and let his eyes rest upon an old mole-hill, that had become quite gray in the drought. Suddenly a small dark spot appeared upon the light-gray mold, another, three, four, many, still more, the entire mole-hill suddenly was quite dark-gray. The air was filled with nothing but long, dark streaks, the leaves nodded and swayed and there rose a murmur which turned into a hissing—rain was pouring down. Everything gleamed, sparkled, spluttered. Leaves, branches, trunks, everything shone with moisture; every little drop that fell on earth, on grass, on the fence, on whatever it was, broke and scattered in a thousand delicate pearls. Little drops hung for a while and became big drops, trickled down elsewhere, joined with other drops, formed small rivulets, disappeared into tiny furrows, ran into big holes and out of small ones, sailed away laden with dust, chips of wood and ragged bits of foliage, caused them to run aground, set them afloat, whirled them round and again caused them to ground. Leaves, which had been separated since they were in the bud, were reunited by the flood; moss, that had almost vanished in the dryness, expanded and became soft, crinkly, green and juicy; and gray lichens which nearly had turned to snuff, spread their delicate ends, puffed up like brocade and with a sheen like that of silk. The convolvuluses let their white crowns be filled to the brim, drank healths to each other, and emptied the water over the heads of the nettles. The fat black wood-snails crawled forward on their stomachs with a will, and looked approvingly towards the sky. And the man? The man was standing bareheaded in the midst of the downpour, letting the drops revel in his hair and brows, eyes, nose, mouth; he snapped his fingers at the rain, lifted a foot now and again as if he were about to dance, shook his head sometimes, when there was too much water in the hair, and sang at the top of his voice without knowing what he was singing, so pre-occupied was he with the rain:

Had I, oh had I a grandson, trala,
And a chest with heaps and heaps of gold,
Then very likely had I had a daughter, trala,
And house and home and meadows untold.

Had I, oh had I a daughter dear, trala,
And house and home and meadows untold,
Then very like had I had a sweetheart, trala.
And a chest with heaps and heaps of gold.

There he stood and sang in the rain, but yonder between the dark hazelbushes the head of a little girl was peeping out. A long end of her shawl of red silk had become entangled in a branch which projected a little beyond the others, and from time to time a small hand went forward and tugged at the end, but this had no other result, further than to produce a little shower of rain from the branch and its neighbors. The rest of the shawl lay close round the little girl’s head and hid half of the brow; it shaded the eyes, then turned abruptly and became lost among the leaves, but reappeared in a big rosette of folds underneath the girl’s chin. The face of the little girl looked very astonished, she was just about to laugh; the smile already hovered in the eyes. Suddenly he, who stood there singing in the midst of the downpour, took a few steps to the side, saw the red shawl, the face, the big brown eyes, the astonished little open mouth; instantly his position became awkward, in surprise he looked down himself; but in the same moment a small cry was heard, the projecting branch swayed violently, the red end of the shawl disappeared in a flash, the girl’s face disappeared, and there was a rustling and rustling further and further away behind the hazelbushes. Then he ran. He did not know why, he did not think at all. The gay mood, which the rainstorm had called forth, welled up in him again, and he ran after the face of the little girl. It did not enter his head that it was a person he pursued. To him it was only the face of a little girl. He ran, it rustled to the right, it rustled to the left, it rustled in front, it rustled behind, he rustled, she rustled, and all these sounds and the running itself excited him, and he cried: “Where are you? Say cuckoo!” Nobody answered. When he heard his own voice, he felt just a little uneasy, but he continued running; then a thought came to him, only a single one, and he murmured as he kept on running: “What am I going to say to her? What am I going to say to her?” He was approaching a big bush, there she had hid herself, he could just see a corner of her skirt. “What am I going to say to her? What am I going to say to her?” he kept on murmuring while he ran. He was quite near the bush, then turned abruptly, ran on still murmuring the same, came out upon the open road, ran a distance, stopped abruptly and burst out laughing, walked smiling quietly a few paces, then burst out laughing loudly again, and did not cease laughing all the way along the hedge.

It was on a beautiful autumn day; the fall of the foliage was going on apace and the path which led to the lake was quite covered with the citron-yellow leaves from the elms and maples; here and there were spots of a darker foliage. It was very pleasant, very clean to walk on this tigerskin-carpet, and to watch the leaves fall down like snow; the birch looked even lighter and more graceful with its branches almost bare and the roan-tree was wonderful with its heavy scarlet cluster of berries. And the sky was so blue, so blue, and the wood seemed so much bigger, one could look so far between the trunks. And then of course one could not help thinking that soon all this would be of the past. Wood, field, sky, open air, and everything soon would have to give way to the time of the lamps, the carpets, and the hyacinths. For this reason the councilor from Cape Trafalgar and his daughter were walking down to the lake, while their carriage stopped at the bailiff’s.

The councilor was a friend of nature, nature was something quite special, nature was one of the finest ornaments of existence. The councilor patronized nature, he defended it against the artificial; gardens were nothing but nature spoiled; but gardens laid out in elaborate style were nature turned crazy. There was no style in nature, providence had wisely made nature natural, nothing but natural. Nature was that which was unrestrained, that which was unspoiled. But with the fall of man civilization had come upon mankind; now civilization had become a necessity; but it would have been better, if it had not been thus. The state of nature was something quite different, quite different. The councilor himself would have had no objection to maintaining himself by going about in a coat of lamb-skin and shooting hares and snipes and golden plovers and grouse and haunches of venison and wild boars. No, the state of nature really was like a gem, a perfect gem.

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